‘If one lives in dear, dirty old London, [washing] three times a day is none too often’
Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?
Day 9: Climbing Boys
The coal fire in the home – and, indeed, industrial furnaces – created massive amounts of atmospheric dirt. The skin of respectable folk had to be regularly washed clean, both of the ‘blacks’ of soot that tumbled from the rooftops and finer particles of filth (‘if one lives in dear, dirty old London, [washing] three times a day is none too often’). A gloomy pall settled on buildings, gardens, trees, statuary, creating ‘a city in which no beautiful thing on which art and trouble has been bestowed can long keep its beauty’. The heavy curtains of the middle-class home; the protective glass domes over delicate ornaments or plants; the demands for constant cleaning by servants – all these were, to a large degree, the consequence of the Victorians’ coal addiction.
Key to maintaining the coal fire was the regular employment of a chimney sweep, removing dangerous blockages of soot from the flues that led to the chimney. At the start of the century, however, the actual work was usually performed by a child apprentice, climbing inside the chimney, scraping out filth – generally a slender boy, fed and clothed by his master, often discarded when he had grown too large. The boys, once they had ‘retired’, were often good for little else. The parish of St. Andrews, Holborn, noted ruefully: ‘the burthen of maintaining as paupers those whose apprenticeships have expired or outgrown the size of climbing, and so far wounded in their limbs, or impaired in health from accidents and diseases, as to be incapable’.
Child chimney-sweeps are now remembered as a Victorian abomination, but their employment dates back to the seventeenth century. It was, in fact, the zeal of Victorian reformers – publicising the horrors of their ‘apprenticeships’ – that ultimately cemented them in our collective imagination as quintessentially ‘Victorian’. The campaign to remove child apprentices from chimneys – introducing, instead, a ‘machine’ of whalebone brushes mounted on poles – would be a lengthy struggle, fought over half a century. It included many printed accounts of the suffering of child sweeps; but the finest, most intimate history is perhaps the latter-day memoir Last of the Climbing Boys by George Elson (1900) … a rare working-class autobiography which spares no detail:
They next week I was sent up a few more chimneys, and then befell me what was the fate of all poor sweep boys upon first learning to ascend and descend chimneys. Knees and elbows, through the constant pressing and friction with brickwork in climbing, became peeled, thus allowing the soot to penetrate. Ugly, festering sores, which took several weeks to heal, were the result, and their scars, about the size of a shilling piece, I bear to this day.
The matter of breathing while accomplishing the ascent of a chimney was always more or less of a difficulty. What was known as a climbing-cap, made of unbleached calico, was drawn over the head and tucked in at the neck. In proper-sized chimneys it was possible to draw in air through the climbing-cap; you could hear distinctly, and could distinguish the light of day at the chimney-top, Still was the soot was hacked down by the scraper, it was impossible but to inhale some, even with the climbing cap as a protection.
In hot, narrow chimneys and large boiler flues, where there was scarce any draught, and the body thus thrown into a state of perspiration, breathing was a source of infinite anxiety and trouble. Where fires had only just been put out, the sulphurous fumes were sufficient to stifle one. On one occasion the fumes were so strong that I fell from top to bottom nigh insensible. And this happened on more than one occasion. Then, again, wet and cold chimneys gave off a most unpleasant odour from the decaying plaster, and were most dangerous to climb.
In coring new chimneys there was much to endure, not only through the smell of bad mortar, but many hard knocks did we get on head and shoulders from pieces of brick and mortar hacked off from above by the scraper; but worst of all were the narrow and tortuous chimneys. At time I have found it necessary in narrow chimneys to slip off my trousers prior to descending, for fear the soot that had got into the pockets in the ascent would prevent my getting down the chimney again.
When properly taught to climb we did not mind ascending chimneys nine inches by fourteen. Those fourteen inches square we could, as it were, run up and down.
Elson, despite his childhood suffering, retained some fond memories of his youth; and remained in the trade into his early adulthood. Ironically enough, he would then go on to become a Turkish bath attendant and, ultimately, develop a profitable practice as a masseur/hydropathist to the gentry.
You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website: Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.
Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.